“Living out of place has led me towards the defeat of the real”: A Conversation with Pablo Brescia

Photo: Jonas Verstuyft

Pablo Brescia was born in Argentina in 1968 and lives in the United States since 1986. He has graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in philosophy and Spanish (1993), a Masters in Spanish (1995) and a doctorate in Hispanic Languages and Literature from the University of California, Santa Barbara (2000). He has published the short story collections La apariencia de las cosas (The Appearance of Things, 1997, UNAM); Fuera de lugar (Out of Place, 2012, Borrador; 2013, UNAM), and La derrota de lo real (The Defeat of the Real, 2017, SED; Librosampleados) on top of the anthologies ESC (2013, Suburbano); and Gente ordinaria (Ordinary People, 2014, Ediciones Carton-ERA). Ha has also published the book of hybrid texts No hay tiempo para la poesía (No Time for Poetry, 2011, Tantalia) under the pseudonym Harry Bimer. He participated in the short story anthology Se habla español: voces latinas en USA (Spanish Spoken Here: Latino Voices in the USA, 2000, Alfaguara). He is a professor of Latin American literature at the University of South Florida (Tampa).

Thomas Nulley-Valdés: How did you end up in the United States?

Pablo Brescia: I arrived when I was 18, due to a sort of economic exile. We didn’t leave Argentina for political reasons, like many other families. We had visited the United States in 1981 because one of my aunts lived in California, and my parents had liked the country. At that time the immigration laws were more flexible than what they are now. In 1985, when we were experiencing a difficult financial period in Argentina, my parents applied for residence in the US. We got it and then we had to decide if we would leave or not. We arrived in California at the end of 1986. The first few months were tough and we worked the kind of jobs considered immigrant work: cleaning cinemas, I was a baker for a while, that sort of thing. In Argentina I had already started studying law so I was ready to continue studying in the United States, but only once I had improved my English. School was always important to me, in terms of a place for learning. By 1987, I was already enrolled in a community college. Once I entered university I never left; I worked there, I studied there, later I graduated and I stayed on.

TNV: As a young person in Argentina during this time, it is possible that before you travelled to the United States you had an idea in your mind of what the country was like. What was your experience once you started your life in California?

PB: I had never really thought about it. In a certain way, I consider myself an American, especially a Californian, because I spent 15 years of my life there. But the US was a very big shock. In Argentina I was not the type to go to nightclubs, or spend all my time with friends; I was more of a withdrawn kid that liked books. However, Argentine socialization is completely different to socialization in the United States, even today, and in those days for me it was mediated by a language which wasn’t mine, English. I suppose the impression that I got from the US was similar to Hemingway’s short story: a clean, well-lighted place. And all the same clichés: order, respect for the road rules, the lack of street life from 7 pm on, different times for meals. On the one hand, there was a shock, but on the other hand I saw an opportunity, a kind of tabula rasa or Yankee Pampas, where I could build something. I remember that was a little bit how I felt at 18.    

TNV: In the year 2000 one of your stories is included in the anthology Se habla español (Alfaguara) that was published in the United States. How did you get involved in this anthology? How much did you know about the purpose of the anthology when the organizers Alberto Fuguet and Edmundo Paz Soldán invited you to participate?

PB: To me, the anthology was a good initiative to open a space for those writers in the Unites States writing in Spanish. At that time, I had already published my first collection of stories in Mexico and I had participated in a few other things. To write the story, I put into practice the hermeneutics of suspicion. I thought about the reader who would open a book entitled Se habla español: voces latinas en USA and who would end up finding what was stated in the prologue: stereotyped aspects of Latino culture in the United States; a hybrid culture, yet an uncritical or light celebration of it. I decided to write a story that would play with some common experiences of Latin Americans living in the United States. Although it isn’t an autobiographical short story, it draws on what I have heard throughout my life, with my family and with my friends. I thought about the story of a Latin American who is like an eternal revolutionary, who hates the United States and the Yankee Empire, who is bitter because he had to leave his country, etc. And the other character is the assimilated Latin American who has sold his soul to the devil, uses English in his writing and thinks that it’s necessary to assimilate, etc. In that dichotomy, the third character in discussion is to me the most entertaining one: An American who is interested in Latin American culture, who takes literature classes and only speaks through literary quotes. The two Latin Americans argue constantly and the American quotes Rubén Darío, Neruda, etc. The story probes those stereotyped images of Latin America and also the stereotyped image of the American who wants to learn about something which isn’t his, and who, paradoxically, is the one who has the most passion for it.

TNV: Do you think that this group of writers which participated in the anthology narrated the United States in some original way?

PB: The anthology was a watershed moment to start seeing the United States beyond the stereotype. I don’t know how much of an impact it had, but literary criticism can evaluate it taking account of reviews, cultural events and categories such as identity, migration, the border, space, in order to rearticulate the elements the anthology presented and proposed. In these 17 years since its publication, there have been other anthologies, some published in the United States, which have brought together other writers who write in Spanish here. There is also a desire to recover the Hispanic heritage in the United States from an academic perspective. It isn’t something organic; they are isolated attempts. What we do have now are important centres of literature in Spanish such as New York, El Paso, Chicago, Miami, and Houston. All of that is a good sign. There is a cultural scene, but the channels of promotion, publication, and readership are still in need of development. Later, work will have to be done to classify this literature in Spanish written by Latin Americans in the United States. What is it? Where is it from? Is it from the United States or is it from each one of the countries of origin? All of these questions are connected to the ideas of migration, border-crossing, and hybrid and multiple identities.

TNV: In your story “La manera correcta de citar” (The Right Way to Quote), the cynical Latin American writer states that “[l]a literatura no es para flagelos ni cilicios; tiene que ser agente de cambio y para eso debe comunicar” (literature isn’t for flagellation nor cilices; it has to be an agent of change and for that it must communicate) (Se habla español, p. 145). What is the role of the writer today? What interests you as an author?

PB: I don’t see myself in that quote. I think the other Latin American writer says that you have to get a literary agent and that literature is a slave to the marketplace, and I also don’t have that attitude. I don’t know if I have a specific standpoint. I think that, for a writer, one of the good things about living in the United States is that we don’t matter to anyone. Writers aren’t very important generally and writers who write in Spanish much less so. There is a common image of the Latin American writer from the Boom generation and before who is a writer and a public intellectual, a burden which s/he would bear due to specific political positions. Like everyone else, I have my political opinions, but I wouldn’t have felt prepared in Argentina, and I feel even less prepared here in the United States, to take a public political stance. My first responsibility as a writer is intimate: Try to give what I am writing what it asks of me. And if it needs sleepless nights, I endure sleepless nights, and if it demands many drafts, I write many versions. At this moment in time in my job as a professor and a writer I have realized that my responsibility is to provide a minimal defence of reading and of culture to my students and my readers. There are many sectors of society where information is circulated in a banal and superficial way; there is little space for debate. I feel comfortable speaking with my students regarding why they think culture can be important, and in that way I can share my experiences. I don’t go anywhere with a hat that says “writer”; quite the opposite, I go around trying to learn from the public and I ask them what they read and provide my own reflections. I think of that as my responsibility, and it’s a very modest one.

TNV: Among the books you have published, the collection of hybrid texts No hay tiempo para la poesía is under a pseudonym, Harry Bimer. Taking into account what you have said about the difficult situation presented to a Latin American author attempting to publish in Spanish in the United States, why did you choose to publish this collection under a pseudonym? And why choose such an Anglo-Saxon name?

PB: A few years ago I was going through a very difficult period in my life and a friend of mine said, “if you’re so unhappy, why don’t you write and channel some of your anxieties with it?” And those texts came out as a result. It was an incredible moment because everything that I touched became literature, I felt like the King Midas of literature. I started writing those hybrid texts and I felt they combined literature with thought. Philosophy was always my first love; philosophy for me asks us to be curious, to want to know and learn. When I presented the book in English, I invented a phrase to describe the texts —“thought-poems” or in Spanish “pensemas”, pensamiento-poema (thought-poem). And when I started to edit them I realised that the voice that spoke in those texts wasn’t Pablo Brescia. That’s when I decided to invent another identity for myself. In regards to the pseudonym, as a kid I was a fan of a television series I would watch in Argentina called La dimensión desconocida, or the The Twilight Zone in English. In one episode, “Time Enough at Last”, there is a bank employee who is an inveterate reader and reads so much that they fire him from the bank because he stops working to do more reading. The episode was set in the atomic era and while he is enclosed in the vault of the bank reading, the town is bombed. Unharmed, he comes out of the vault to find everything destroyed and realises that there is no one else, and that he is alone. First, this worries him, but then he realises that he has time to read and so he goes to the library and piles up books for himself. When he picks up the first book to start reading, his glasses fall to the ground and break. And that’s where the episode ends. I always thought that the cruel irony of that final scene was fantastic. In fact, I re-wrote that episode as a post-apocalyptic short story in La apariencia de las cosas (1997). The protagonist’s name in that episode was Henry Bimes, and in my childhood memory I remembered it as Harry Bimer; thus my pseudonym arises out of a memory error!

TNV: The short stories of Fuera de lugar encompass mystery and the fantastic. On top of presenting various real settings (the United States, Italy, Argentina, Mexico, Japan, among others), they allow the reader to explore the “area” out of place of the memories and the perspectives of the characters who have experienced or are experiencing fantastic or at times hallucinatory events. This game between the real and the fantastical (as well as the mythical) is continued in La derrota de lo real. What does the fantastical mean to you?

PB: I am a devoted reader of fantastic literature, in its universal and Latin American traditions. However, sometimes I feel that the fantastic as discourse lends itself to a literary abuse I prefer to avoid; realism, on the other hand, is so omnipresent that it would appear as though it is never abused when in fact quite the opposite occurs. That is to say, the supernatural as an insoluble mystery or as the domestication of the strange doesn’t interest me. In my stories I try to explore what the fantastic code brings to the stage: the limits of the real, the whimsy nature of reason, uncertainty etc. I think that stories like “Para llegar a D.F.W.” (To get to D.F.W.) or “Realismo sucio” (Dirty Realism), from Fuera de lugar, or “Takj” or “Código 51” (Area 51), included in La derrota de lo real, distance themselves from the stereotypes of the fantastic and travel closer to the nooks that the real leaves us so we can breathe a little under the weight of the world.

TNV: As a writer and professor you have worked from the creative side and the critical side of the literary world. The traditional function of the literary critic is understood as an evaluator of works; however in your short story “Pequeño Larousse de escritores idiotas” (Idiots: A Dictionary) from La derrota de lo real, you get even in a sense by ironizing the work of literary critics. Can you comment a little about your dual profession and about this game? What is the role of the literary critic in relation to the literary creator?

PB: I’d like this duality to be thought in terms of Ricardo Piglia’s Crítica y ficción (Criticism and Fiction), for example: ways to read and write which aren’t opposed, but many times complementary. When I speak about writing, I say, as a joke, that I implement the “theory of two hats”: I put on one to do criticism, and another to create fiction. In the best of cases, both pair up and it is a harmonious relationship. In the case of the short story you mention, the idea was to observe that very strange passion of literature from the vantage point of literary criticism, which at times underestimates what has value and other times inflates writers or tendencies which don’t interest me. As I understand it, both practices converge towards a single point: to think fiction and criticism as ways of resolving a question or a problem.

TNV: Your first short story collection La apariencia de las cosas  (1997) was inspired and influenced by your philosophical interests and readings. And, as you have mentioned, in No hay tiempo para la poesía (2011), Harry Bimer presents hybrid texts of formal experimentation. How do you see your trajectory from your first short story collection, onto Fuera de lugar (2012) and 20 years later with La derrota de lo real (2017)? How do you see the development of your aesthetic or literary poetics?

PB: I have never thought of myself in terms of trajectory or complete works. I try to avoid anything that resembles classification. Maybe project would be a more appropriate word for what I am trying to do. With this last book I close a trilogy that tries to use literature to question time, space, and reality. Let’s say, living out of place makes me think of the appearance of things and has led me towards the defeat of the real. I write because I struggle against the dulling of life, because I want to entertain others and myself, I want to move people, I want to accompany them and be accompanied by them. I like to find happiness in what I have read or written. I don’t belong to any national or regional tradition, I don’t participate in any significant way in the book marketplace. As a newspaper in Mexico once described me quite well, I am a nomad in editorial and aesthetic terms. In that sense my poetics or aesthetics could be those, of the nomad, the peripheral figure, the weirdo: far from genre conventions, from literary movements or groups, from the new and the old, and closer to invention, imagination and the sublime pain of being alive.

Translated by Thomas Nulley-Valdés

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LALT No. 4
Number 4

The fourth issue of LALT highlights underrepresented but deserving voices from across Latin America, with a focus on women writers as well as special sections dedicated to genre-bending science fiction, indigenous-language poetry and prose, and the essential relationship between author and translator.

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